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Independent Reassessment Group
A discussion of the current organizational structure of the SGI-USA and the need to develop a more American-style organization based on democratic principles.

submitted November 17, 1998

by the Independent Reassessment Group

I. Overview

The SGI-USA is an American constituent of the Soka Gakkai International, which as an organization is dedicated to respecting "the independence and autonomy of its constituent organizations in accordance with the conditions prevailing in each country." Because the United States is founded on and practices representative democracy, we believe that the SGI-USA should base its actions and policies on democratic principles. It should be responsive to the members' needs and wishes. It should seek members' opinions at all levels regarding official policies, procedures and activities. It should encourage open and public discussion and debate of issues. President Ikeda states that it should be "…the launching pad for the worldwide kosen-rufu movement…my wish is that (SGI-USA) will eventually even develop the strength to provide a lead for Japan." It should seek to include all followers of Nichiren Daishonin's buddhism in America, not just those who subscribe to official SGI-USA policies. The SGI-USA states "…that our procedures will need constant updating and revision. There is no doubt that continual refinements will be needed to develop the best system possible." We hope to contribute to further refinements. The following points highlight our concerns.

II. Key Issues

1. Organizational Structure: The SGI-USA is out of step with the times and American society in terms of its organizational structure. Current leadership structures are still based on the old hierarchical organizational model. Based on directives and appointments with a "top down" viewpoint, the organization does not encourage autonomy, initiative, and empowerment, and as such is in contradiction to the direction received from President Ikeda during his February, 1990 visit to the United States.

2. Member's Opinions: The SGI-USA has no efficient means for gauging the needs and wishes of its members, and especially has no program for polling estranged or alienated members, who may have valuable insight but are out of touch in part because of real or perceived past errors on the part of the organization or specific leaders.

3. Public Discussion: SGI-USA publications do not encourage or publish all reasonable discussion and debate for the members' consideration, but rather avoid certain "taboo" topics. Our democratic society was founded on the principle of free speech, based on the understanding that authoritarianism becomes possible in reverse proportion to the ability of the people to express, and be exposed to, dissenting views.

4. Divisional System: The current divisional system, imported from Japan, should be dissolved. It involves arbitrary "pigeonholing" and can be divisive or even sexist in practice, as well as being strange in appearance to American new members or non-members.

III. Discussion

1. Organizational Structure

While acknowledging that positive steps have been taken, we believe that more must be done to eliminate older hierarchical structures and insert a new system more compatible with the times and the land. In order for our Buddhist organization to continue to grow in an American society, it must embrace the democratic practices of that society. The Buddhist principle of zuiho bini teaches that, not only is it acceptable for Buddhism to be practiced according to the cultural traditions of the land, it is desirable, as long as there are no doctrinal deviations. Nichiren Daishonin states "…that, so long as no seriously offensive act is involved, then, even though one should depart to some slight degree from the teachings of Buddhism, one should avoid going against the manners and customs of the country." President Ikeda has said, "There are many differences…between the cultures, climates and social systems of Japan and the United States. Therefore, it is only natural that there might be differences in how kosen-rufu is advanced in the two countries."

We have seen some progress along the lines described by Nichiren and by Ikeda, above. It remains to be seen what substance this progress really carries. It is true that some of the former authoritarian doctrines are no longer clearly evident. That said, there appear to be unwritten (and therefore difficult to substantiate) protocols which are followed, regardless of stated intentions to the contrary. This is evidenced by a casual perusal of the "SGI-USA Leadership Manual." While innocuous in appearance, it describes in detail a "top down" system of selecting and appointing area leaders and establishing membership groups, leaving the method of national leadership selection a mystery. It does not have any provisions for membership participation in selection or approval of their own representatives or leaders.

It is fundamental to understand how the current structure developed. Our organization was founded and initially led by immigrants from Japan. It was Soka Gakkai pioneers who introduced this Buddhism to America, and it was their tireless efforts which encouraged its growth on this continent. Without detracting from those efforts it is fair to say that they naturally brought a distinctly Japanese flavor to the fledgling American organization. The Japanese organizational methods were authoritarian in nature, reflecting cultural trends developed over centuries, and only recently modified by the introduction of democracy to Japan. It should be noted that, unlike in America, democracy was essentially forced on the Japanese people, at the conclusion of the Second World War. To their credit they have enthusiastically embraced it and made great advances forward; however, it can be said that an underlying rejection of authoritarianism is "in the American blood," a process which has developed over many generations. Embracing democratic principles as a core societal function is still a work in progress for the Japanese.

While it is accurate to say that American influence has modified and tempered this hierarchical trend in our organization, the SGI-USA leadership continues to be dominated by Japanese top leaders, and all key national policy decisions and leadership appointments still come from, or must be approved by, the SGI in Japan. The leadership continues to be fundamentally uncomfortable with democratic practices, and is reluctant to allow them in an unfettered manner, or to release control to Americans. It is past time for them to relinquish these controls and allow Americans to run our American organization, utilizing American methods. "…the key to any organization's future lies in whether it can apprehend this radical change, the change from control to service…Buddhism by its very nature is utterly free of authoritarianism…"

There are a variety of organizations in American society which can be looked at as models of successful systems for our consideration, such as our political parties and government institutions, special interest groups and religious organizations. We understand that pure republican democracy as envisioned by the American Founding Fathers is a messy affair at best, and we do not propose that the SGI-USA adopt it in unabridged form. While no one group will have a system in place which is exactly suitable for the SGI-USA, many can offer elements which may function well for us.

Our political parties use a relatively pure representative democratic system, wherein local organizations elect representatives who participate at the next level to elect representatives, and so on to the national level. At that level there is naturally a professional administrative group which is not elected, but they are hired (and fired) by elected representatives. While this system, especially in politics, can and does allow corruption and favoritism, it at least attempts to insure that the organizations are responsive to their constituencies. The dangers are obvious when we observe dissatisfaction from the membership base, but this can be remedied either by the next round of elections, or by the choice made by participating individuals to curtail their participation with a particular party. We see similar structures, and problems, with labor unions. The attractive point of this type of system is that it is (ideally) responsive to the needs and wishes of its membership.

An interesting government-controlled entity which is worthy of review is the new system for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Called "LEARN," it is a system whereby each local school forms an elected group consisting of administrators, teachers, and parents, and they are to be completely in charge of local decisions as to curriculum, policy, and so forth. Although in the experimental stage, it is a good reflection of the principle of local control, by a coalition of the individuals who are best suited to make decisions.

Special interest groups vary widely in organizational structure, and not all offer good models. It should be noted that the success and growth of any group will depend on the satisfaction of its members, who participate voluntarily. Such disparate groups as the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Boy Scouts of America, the NAACP and many others all use some modified form of democratic system. Looking at the Boy Scouts, there is even a dual system in place. The local Scout troops are made up of patrols of boys who elect their patrol leader. At the same time there is a Scoutmaster for each troop who is usually a volunteer parent, who participates with other volunteers in local councils. These groups elect representatives to higher levels, and the national leadership is mostly professional. The adult leadership exercises authority over the boys, but many groups allow the boys a great degree of autonomy, and they encourage the boys themselves to shape their local programs and activities. This is an interesting model in that it contains both adults and young people, although it only exists for the benefit of the boys. It is also interesting to note that there is in place a set of rules, or by-laws, which essentially define the organization's ideology, and these are considered to be for the most part, inviolate. This can be compared, in our case, to fundamental buddhist doctrine.

Religious groups offer some of the best - and worst - examples for our study. The Roman Catholic church, for instance, entirely hierarchical in nature, is a case where many of its practitioners simply ignore issues with which they disagree. Unable to really participate in the decision making process, they ignore the aspects of it which are uncomfortable to them. (This may be an interesting parallel to the current situation within the SGI-USA.) Many Protestant groups, on the other hand, are very democratic. It is common for congregations to elect lay leaders and a council or vestry board which conducts the affairs of the church, including hiring and firing of permanent employees, from the janitor to the minister. In many cases national organizations hold regular conventions where elected representatives determine new policy. Religious doctrine is considered to be a fixed guideline, although interpretations, and disputes, often arise. An important aspect of these religious entities is that, when members of a particular sect or church are dissatisfied with the direction their group is taking, they can, and do, go "down the street" to a church more to their liking.

In the case of the SGI-USA, basic ideology is very clear, due to the "literal proof" aspect of Nichiren's teachings. We can always directly inspect his words for clarification of intent. This eliminates what has been a major source of strife in other groups, particularly some of the religious organizations. As there may still be differing interpretations of the same passages, though, this highlights even more the need for a forum of open discussion (see below). We are also fortunate in our ability to seek resolution of disputes through the powerful means offered by our buddhist faith. This reality means that we should be able to develop an organization utilizing the best democratic principles, without the shortcomings sometimes inherent in them. It is imperative that we do so, unless we are willing to consider the possibility of dissatisfied members going "down the street" and forming new groups or organizations, neither temple-affiliated nor SGI.

Some specific suggestions which can apply to the SGI-USA are in order. First and foremost is the basic concept of representational leadership, at least for administrative functions. A practice of asking volunteer leaders to step forth, and be confirmed by the membership of their groups, is, we feel, a more accurate shadow of American practices than the current "top down" system of selection and approval.

For instance, local meeting places and neighborhood groups could select representatives by consensus from interested volunteers as needed to fulfill the necessary functions of planning, communications, etc. They may choose to have leaders established and remaining in place, or they may be more comfortable with a regular rotation of responsibilities. They may choose to have no one leader "in charge" but rather to operate on a committee basis. These representatives would represent the group to the chapter. The chapter will, in this system, receive accurate input from the groups and districts regarding the member's needs and wishes. These representatives would likewise choose chapter representatives and so forth. Particular functions might have specific sets of criteria to be fulfilled, depending on the function. For example, the person tasked with communication might need, in some areas, an ability to speak a particular language. The person chosen as the "study" person may be required to have passed a certain level of study, have practiced a certain amount of time and be comfortable talking in front of a group. Different levels might have a more stringent set of criteria. Each person in charge of a function could utilize other people, not necessarily meeting the stated criteria, to help and therefore advance their capabilities in those functions. If an organizational level cannot find a person to fulfill a particular function, they can ask the next level for assistance in finding a person for that responsibility.

At the Regional level (using the system currently in place) the representatives would select representatives to the Central Executive Committee. At some point (undetermined in this paper, pending further study) a level of professional (paid) staff becomes necessary. These persons would be subject to oversight and control by the confirmed representatives from the regions, or perhaps the CEC. The CEC would select the General Director or equivalent, as well as any other key national leadership positions, which selections would not require overseas approval.

Leaders in faith and guidance may not necessarily be the same as the organizational leaders described above, and may be the exception to the democratic guidelines, although they would, in this system, be subject to some of the same approval processes. There is a wealth of experience in the SGI-USA membership, beginning with the Japanese pioneers who have been practicing thirty or forty years or more. Other senior members may have an interest in participating as guidance leaders while lacking the desire or the ability, due to work, health or family situations or for other reasons, to participate as "line" leaders on a regular basis. At the same time, some of the individuals who voluntarily take on "line" positions may not be best suited as guidance leaders. The general membership would benefit greatly if these senior persons were made available for guidance in faith and practice, and as teachers in the study of Nichiren's philosophy, without some of the current somewhat rigid restraints on access. At each organizational level a guidance group could be identified for the members. A very important aspect of this policy would be the assurance that any member is encouraged to seek guidance from any leader with whom he or she is comfortable, even if it is a person outside that individual's designated group.

A published set of guidelines or by-laws, with a clear Mission Statement, is essential to the health of the organization. This establishes basic doctrine and policy to enable members to make decisions within the appropriate boundaries. A means of addressing and suggesting changes to the by-laws should also be in place and accessible to all members.

In conclusion, we see no reason not to move forward with a real democratization plan for our organization. The necessary first change, at the very top level of our organization, is to make a determination that, within the bounds of Nichiren's teachings and the SGI Charter, we should be an autonomous organization. Then we can substantively realize the "…change…from leaders who give orders to leaders who facilitate consensus. The age of 'orders from above, obedience below' has come to an end…Leaders, as distinct from bureaucrats, rouse hope and courage in the hearts of all the people and lead them to awaken the desire to attain enlightenment. At the same time leaders take personal responsibility for the results of their actions. This is a big difference, and it will get bigger and clearer in the future. People resist orders and dictates as if by instinct. Ours is an age where things happen from the bottom up, from the front lines forward."

We have intentionally framed the suggestions above in a very general sense, as we believe that any real change will be best decided through dialogue and discussion, and by a much more comprehensive group than ours. Key, though, to this discussion is the ideal of open and honest exchange in a democratic style. Until we achieve this, we cannot appeal to the general populace in our own country.

2. Member's Opinions

In order for our national leadership to move forward, it must be aware of the wishes and needs of the membership. It must be responsive to the members' needs and wishes. It should seek members' opinions at all levels regarding official policies, procedures and activities. "In the past, information was concentrated in the leaders' hands…today people in the 'hands on' positions, in many cases, know a great deal more than their bosses, even in industry…in many cases grass-roots level members have a better grasp of things than their leaders." If we are to move forward as President Ikeda has suggested, the organization must be in tune with the members. In order to do this, it must develop a means of polling the membership in its entirety. A national survey, if correctly structured and administered, would serve as an initial means for understanding the current mood of the members. As a result of this understanding, the national organization can begin to determine the breadth and scope of needed change. "Ours is an age when the main task of a leader is to communicate the ideas of those below to those above."

Sampling methods will be inadequate. This is because any potential contact list must be taken from existing data, which is mainly subscription lists and current membership lists. This will represent the opinions of those current members who are involved enough in the organization to be on these lists, but it will automatically exclude members who are out of touch with the mainstream organization. This would be a great mistake. Over the years of its existence, the SGI-USA (and old NSA) has experienced periods of expansion and contraction. During each growth phase many new members joined who have since withdrawn from participation in SGI-USA activities but who maintain at least a strong affection for Nichiren Daishonin's teachings. In addition, there is a large number of former leaders and strong members who maintain a buddhist practice while keeping a distance from the organization, and the temple group as well. The reasons for this are probably numerous -- a survey would, among other things, help to specifically identify these reasons – but they certainly involve, at least in part, a dissatisfaction with the organization itself. It is important to reach out to these members and inform them that the organization has changed, and continues to do so, and that it is interested in their input and their participation. Among these members and ex-members are many sincere and valuable individuals who will benefit greatly by participation with other members, and who will benefit the organization at all levels with their history and experience in Buddhist practice. Any valid opinion poll must attempt to reach these people.

A poll or survey must be broad in scope and fairly presented. There are many issues which are rarely, if ever addressed by the national organization, at least in print. A substantive survey must address all issues, including those which are considered to be "taboo." It must also be prepared in such a way as to avoid any appearance of bias. While it might be prepared by the national organization, it should be exhaustively reviewed and critiqued by members outside of the leadership structure to insure that all of the questions asked are crafted to appear completely neutral, thus allowing respondents to feel free to respond openly. It should be "name optional" so that members who might have reason to feel uneasy about being identified with certain points of view are not intimidated.

Lastly, it is imperative that the results be published, both so that all members can see what the membership at large thinks about the various issues, and as a signal to the membership that the national leadership takes these opinions seriously. It will be very difficult for the organization to equivocate or delay changes when the members understand exactly where the entire membership wants to go.

3. Public Discussion:

Freedom of expression is fundamental to American culture. It is guaranteed by our Constitution and is considered by many to be the freedom upon which all others depend. It is interesting to observe that the Framers of the Bill of Rights chose to inextricably link freedom of speech with freedom of religion, rather than view them as separate issues. If our organization is to "avoid going against the manners and customs of the country," it must understand this principle and put it into practice.

Presently our publications avoid discussion and debate on all but minor issues. While allowing arguments to be printed about the aesthetic value of a new masthead logo, or about tolerance for gay rights, the World Tribune has consistently declined to print substantive criticism of our organization of the type found herein. President Ikeda has stated that the WT is urged to "revitalize the glorious tradition of American democracy." We agree with this guidance, and we feel that our publications need to be more open to the spirit expressed by President Ikeda. As he said at a youth training session on February 20, 1990, "Of course you are perfectly free to say what must be said even to your fellow members in faith, and it is necessary to do so." He went on to say "…there is a difference between words spoken with real concern for your listener and those spoken with hatred or jealousy. It is extremely important to understand and observe this distinction."

Public dissent in Japanese culture is relatively new, having been imported from the West mostly as an aftermath to World War II. Because the SGI-USA leadership is predominantly Japanese, and because it receives direction from the SGI in Japan, it appears to be uncomfortable with the American practice of dissent, and seems reluctant to encourage it. The appearance of the SGI-USA publications is that they promote very specific agendas and do not print material which is contrary to those agendas. They sometimes even use what appear to be propaganda techniques to insure that the members perceive matters from the desired perspective. (The foregoing statements in this paragraph are, for obvious reasons, unsubstantiated by printed verification, but we trust that the recipients of this work will judge them fairly.)

It is our belief that, until our organization is willing to encourage public discussion, there can be no substantive change in the character of the SGI-USA. We are aware of, and appreciate, efforts on the part of individual leaders to engage in discussion of the issues we have raised; however, without a public (printed) acknowledgement of these questions and exposure of all sides in the debate, such individual efforts seem to be little better than mollifying techniques, meant to placate, soothe and put off, without any real commitment to change.

Without belaboring the point, it can be said that, when responsible debate and opposing views on fundamental issues see print in our publications, the goal of democratization for our organization will be insured. "Words are mysterious. They have tremendous power." Until the SGI-USA allows all reasonable words to reach the membership, it assumes a default position of preserving the status quo and opposing real democratic activity. We realize that certain forms of dissent can be destructive, but we believe that SGI-USA publications can craft a "middle ground" forum which allows discussion and disagreement without creating a negative atmosphere harmful to our organization. We believe it is essential to our growth as an organization that they do so.

4. Divisional System:

The current divisional system, imported from Japan, should be dissolved. It involves "pigeonholing" and can be divisive or even sexist in practice, as well as being strange in appearance to new members or non-members. There should be no "divisional" leaders or organization. In its place should be an American-style system which first encourages membership in the larger organization, focussed on development of faith, and then provides opportunities for involvement in interest groups such as youth activities, women's groups, men's groups, artistic or musical activities, student activities and other cultural functions, all on a voluntary basis and as desired by the membership.

In America there has been, and continues to be, a struggle to eradicate the barriers between the sexes and between age groups. The SGI-USA needs to realize that the Japanese-style divisional system plays into, at minimum, the appearance of resistance to these trends. While there can be nothing wrong with voluntary associations of individuals with similar interests within our organization, the arbitrary classification of people is counterproductive. Some individuals may enthusiastically embrace a youth group or a professional group while others may be content to attend occasional meetings and just practice buddhism. Our organization should be sensitive to these needs and refrain from stigmatizing the members.

Again we can look at other American organizations as models. Many groups have youth auxiliaries, senior groups, and other subsets within the parent organization to serve particular needs or interests, but they are usually voluntary. Like the successful groups elsewhere in American society, we should adopt a position which clarifies our primary concern with members' practice and happiness, and secondarily with any other activities in which they may choose to participate. While it is vital to encourage young people to challenge themselves, and youth groups can help to accomplish this purpose, they should be patterned more on American models.

It is important to note that the divisional system is strange in appearance to Americans. It can invoke visions of fascist youth marching in lockstep or compulsory service as seen in the past in totalitarian nations or groups. While offering parallel services to some American groups' subsets, it is most obviously not an American custom, in its current form. While acknowledging that there is value in encouraging persons with similar interests to associate in our buddhist environment, it needs to be carried out in a way which is not unattractive to Americans.

IV. Conclusion

Using the premise that our organization should be democratically based, and drawing on the examples above and democratic traditions in general, what we are most immediately interested in is encouraging the general membership to look at these points and discuss them in a public forum.

We do not suggest that we have all, or even most, of the answers as to what our organization should become. We are eager to participate in a constructive activity, with any interested members and leaders, which will continue the process of developing the correct solutions. We understand the potential for "sowing the seeds of disunity," but we feel that the issues being discussed warrant that risk, and we ask that our presentation be reviewed with the understanding that it is offered in a constructive vein, aimed at increasing the unity of our organization through the fundamentally American method of open and egalitarian participation by all concerned.

Respectfully submitted by the Independent Reassessment Group:

Gale Fue
Andy Hanlen
Dana Hanlen
Linda Myring
John Nicks
Jay Williams

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